High school teachers hit the Hill

In Christopher Lazarski’s public policy class, 11th-graders have to work for a political campaign or polling station to pass.
For girls who have no interest in government, he posts a photo of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the room, so they see that women, too, are leaders of the country.

“I call it edutainment,” he said.

Last week, Lazarski was one of 10 high school teachers who came to the Hill as House Fellows under the historian’s office, a program now three years old. This is the second year it has held the fellows’ week on legislative education for educators.

The fellows, all history and government teachers, watched the ins and outs of the legislative process. Even though Congress’s approval ratings continue to decline nationwide, many of the fellows remained optimistic at the end of their time on the Hill.

“I only wish that every single American could see it,” said Tisha Menchhofer, a teacher from Ohio. She says that many constituents are upset with this Congress because they think that no one in Washington is looking after the people’s interests. If voters knew just how slowly the legislative process works, she says, they might be less critical.

Christopher Swanson, an American history and government teacher from Moose Lake, Minn., shares her optimism. He came to D.C. with the expectation that the Democratic leadership is less organized than the Republicans were.

“But I didn’t see that,” he said. “It seems quite organized.”

Another fellow piped up and said he wasn’t content with what he had seen, however.

“All the stalling and gamesmanship — it’s too much about the party, and not about what’s good for the country,” said Paul Hodges, a history teacher from Athens, W.Va. He said he is more cynical about this Congress after the week than he had been before. But the other fellows were much more positive in their views.

Several of the teachers had previously brought their classes to Washington and seen all the tourist highlights. On the Hill, they were ready to get down and dirty in the legislative process.

They spent extended time sitting in the gallery, meeting with members like House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), talking with Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post, hanging out with former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and spending two hours in conversation with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

“It was like he was our neighbor,” said Menchhofer.

Robin Wanosky, of Watertown, Mass., says she got to escort her congressman, Edward Markey (D), to the floor.

Hard work on new curricula and research consumed a large part of the fellows’ time. Although they were told it would be a 55-hour week, the teachers say it stretched to 70. But the long hours are for a larger purpose: The historian’s office’s goal is to affect 10,000 students through this fellowship each year.

“We are teaching them to be citizens,” said Michael Cronin, office manager in the historian’s office.